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Southeast Asia’s Pakistan Problem

MANILA -- Pakistan’s near political chaos, the result of President Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of martial law last year and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has had a tsunami-like impact across Southeast Asia. Should Musharraf’s government backslide even more on its commitments to restore parliamentary democracy, Pakistan’s crisis would not only be exacerbated, but it might begin to infect the wider region.

At direct stake today is Pakistan’s future, but its future may determine the political fates of neighboring countries that are also struggling with violent Islamic fundamentalism. Will Pakistan be dragged along the path of Islamic extremism and emergency rule, or finally achieve modernity as a secular nation under civilian leadership?

That choice matters as an example across Asia, because Pakistan has long been the traditional sanctuary of Al Qaeda and its Taliban cohorts, who hide in the inhospitable Pakistani-Afghani border region. These Islamic terrorists, with their global reach, could well tilt the balance from one extreme to the other in a number of countries.  

The fallout from Bhutto’s assassination was bound to reach beyond Pakistan’s borders. The country’s mushrooming instability has triggered a bitter debate in the United States about the long-term viability of Musharraf’s military-backed government and whether US financial support for Pakistan should continue.